This is part of a new series of posts, separate from the main blogs, in which More Than Arshavin will profile the teams which make up the wonderful world of Russian football. Teams from every league will eventually find themselves here, with the pieces shifting between historical narrative, present situation and future prospects whilst trying to capture the essence of each club. If you have a club you would like to see featured, either leave a comment or contact me via Twitter – I’d love to hear your ideas.
It is not uncommon in the modern era to hear of football clubs talking about meeting performance targets and working to a long term plan. After all, most football clubs are now business venutres which need first and foremost to meet the demands of their shareholders, with the need to balance profitability and performance gradually drifting towards the former.
In Russia, such language can almost be excused by the lexicon of the Soviet era, when life was determined by the latest economic plan – from leisure time to bread prices, the state had control. On the football field, the link between club and state was often blurred, whether more obviously in the form of the all-Union societies such as CSKA and Lokomotiv, or more locally, as individual sides adopted the moniker of the town or city’s primary industry – another aspect of Soviet policy designed to turn into settlement into cog in the machine – resulting in sides such as Shinnik and Textilshchik.
The residents of Nizhnekamsk therefore have a ready-made excuse for the somewhat awkward name of their local side. Neftekhimik, which translate as ‘petrochemical,’ have their foundations in an unofficial team established as far back as the 1960s, even if the modern-day side only date back to the chaos of the early 90s.
Three decades early, Nizhnekamsk owed it very existence to the petrochemical industry which became the lifeblood of the city. Many of its 235,000 inhabitants owed their livelihoods to the huge plant which sprang up in the city, Nizhnekamsk laying very few claims to the rich Tatar history of those elsewhere in their republic. As specialists and engineers extended the city beyond its existing limits, it became apparent that Nizhnekamsk was based entirely on oil.
The same stands true today. Whilst Tatar capital Kazan evolves into a thriving metropolis in the centre of Russia, a melting pot of culture quite obviously distinct from the rest of the country, Nizhnekamsk remains largely unchanged from its Soviet routes. High-rise apartment blocks line the city’s grid of streets, and it is a settlement far removed from both the tourist trail and the alternative routes favoured by more adventurous travellers.
In footballing terms, the city also struggles to carve its own distinct identity. At the start of the 2012/13 season the goals began to flow, and the club have been involved in a handful fo high-scoring matches to entertain the fans. However, like so many clubs based outside of the traditional heartland, they face a constant battle to emerge from the shadow of the local KHL ice hockey team, in this case a part of the same society and therefore sharing a name.
The hockey team may not be competing in the latter stages of the Gagarin Cup, regularly sneaking into the play-offs to be beaten at the first hurdle by a higher seed, but they remain considerably closer to their sport’s first prize than their footballing neighbours. Since formally becoming a professional club in 1991, Neftekhimik have tried and failed to reach the promised land fo the Premier League, at worst languishing in the regional divisions and at best holding down an upper midtable position within the First Division.
The closest they ever came to the top flight was in 1994, just three years after beginning their campaign in the regional leagues. Promotion at the second attempt took them into Russia’s second tier, and an impressive performance took them to the lofty heights of 6th place in the First Division. Good results against leading teams in the league led to a sense of optimism in Tatarstan as they did battle with rivals Rubin in the lower leagues, and the following year Neftekhimik survived the grand reshuffle, finishing 7th to remain in the second tier while so many others were dropped in the reorganised Second Division.
Unfortunately for those in Nizhnekamsk not pre-occupied with the hockey, that would be as good as it got for the club. Slowly performances began to deteriorate, and in 1998, despite the best efforts of Gennady Sarychev, the man who had first won promotion into the second tier, the club succumbed to relegation and the need to rebuild from the ground up.
From that point on, the targets changed with each passing year. Promotion out of the regionals took two years, and an inital surge of promise was quickly forgotten when, following the loss of star men Sergei Budylin and Rustyam Fakhrutdinov to Torpedo Moscow and Balanovo, the club again slid down the table, first narrowly avoiding relegation and then falling through the trapdoor once more.
In 2007, Neftekhimik seemed to accept their place in the footballing world, both locally and nationally. A new focus on developing young players seemed to rule out any immediate return to the First Division, while at the same time the club signed an agreement with Rubin – the club they finished above in the 90s now a title-winning giant – to co-operate on youth development and facilities, in all but name an agreement to become a farm club for the Kazan side.
Since then, things have improved dramatically for the petrochemical club. Narrow failure to win promotion in 2010 was followed by success the following season, and the agreement with Rubin began to prove its worth. Players such as Tajik youngster Alisher Djalilov, Turkmen youth international Vahyt Orazsakhedov and Rubin’s €750k Ecuadorian forward Walter Chala – all of a quality comfortably out of Neftekhimik’s usual reach – made the step down from the Premier League to help the smaller team, and in doing so established a platform on which to build First Division status.
Whether the side will be able to go further is something that remains to be seen, but even if they do achieve promotion it seems likely that they would be forced to rely on the Rubin deal for the immediate future, as the club simply lacks the resources to compete as a stand-alone entity. Should they ever make that move upwards, they would finally stand a chance of competing against their KHL neighbours, but even success in that battle would be a struggle. For the time being, the most likely scenario is that they remain precisely where they are – mirroring their city’s progress since the later 60s.